© Copyright 2000 by Christine Watt
Sadly Monsieur Bilbo Baggins is now dead, although he lived to be a noisy, opinionated 19 years. I still miss that pint-sized rescue cat terribly.
"That cat’s acting strangely, isn’t he, Tinty?" asked Da, peering over the tops of his reading glasses. He held the newspaper open, distracted from headlines of death and destruction by the decidedly odd goings-on of Monsieur Bilbo Baggins, who simply would not let me leave the house.
I was due at rehearsal in New York City in an hour. I had to leave now. But Monsieur Bilbo Baggins would have none of it as he guarded the door screaming the way only a Siamese can. I tried to open the door, but he planted himself so I’d squash his toes if I persevered. I picked him up to hand to Mam, but he wrapped my head in his front legs and dug his claws into my shoulders. I couldn’t peel him off. This was worse than when I took him to the vet. I didn’t understand it at all, he’d never behaved like this before. Normally when I left for rehearsal, he adopted the "See if I care" attitude cats convey so well. Then when I returned, I got a nonchalant "So what?" for some considerable time, which I thought pretty rich coming from a rescue cat.
At last I prized his paws away and handed him to Mam, whom normally he adored, but he leaped with a shriek from her as if he’d landed on a hot-plate. He twined around my ankles until I smacked down on my bottom with a thump.
"He doesn’t want you to leave, does he?" said Da, puzzled.
Mam frowned and commented, "Peculiar."
"If he doesn’t get better after I’ve gone," I called over a protesting Monsieur Bilbo Baggins as I carried him to the kitchen and fastened him in, "would you call the vet, please? I’ll be back as soon as I can. Let him have the run of the house as soon as I’ve gone, won’t you?"
Mam nodded and said, "Have a nice time, pet."
"Ta-ta," said Da, returning to the paper.
It was great having Mam and Da here. They were visiting from their sleepy village in England while my husband was on a business trip to the Far East.
I escaped to the garage and drove down our driveway. Monsieur Bilbo Baggins leaped from window to window following me, yowling so loudly I could hear him through the storm windows. I was baffled. He was acting the same way he had over Bugsy dog’s leg. He’d screamed at that leg for days until one day Bugsy stood up and yelped in agony as out shot the leg uncontrollably. A visit to the vet revealed a tumor. Fortunately we caught it in time. I shook my head and headed for the Lincoln Tunnel that would take me from New Jersey to Manhattan under the Hudson River.
Rehearsal was in the Ansonia Hotel, that Mecca for music-lovers where Caruso had once stayed, and amazingly I found a parking spot on nearby Riverside Drive. I wasn’t sure if I was parked legally so got out of the car to check parking signs. After studying them, I was none the wiser but decided to risk it until I could ask somebody at rehearsal. I almost asked three young men passing by, but they were walking too quickly. I set off along the sidewalk in the opposite direction, going over my part in my head. I’d just rounded the corner into 73rd Street when the nightmare began.
"Give me money." One of the young men blocked my way, his two friends either side of me, very close.
I thought they must have to make a phone call. "You need a dime?" I asked with a smile, reaching into my bag.
A gun was thrust under my nose. I wondered why. Was this some kind of joke? Why would three total strangers want to shoot me? I’d never done them any harm, I’d never done anybody any harm that I could think of, I was even a vegan so I wouldn’t harm any living being. It must be one of those Candid Camera scenarios. A little flag would pop out of the gun proclaiming, "Bang," and we’d all have a jolly good laugh.
They must have thought I was resisting handing over my money or I was going for a gun in my bag because the next thing I knew the biggest one grasped my coat lapels in one fist. I was helpless as a rag doll as he lifted me up off the ground. The one with the gun looked nervous, wild-eyed, the gun shaking as he jabbed it in my face. A vision of Mam sobbing over a hospital cot where I lay with half a head flashed before my mind’s eye and I prayed silently, "Let them kill me not make me a vegetable."
The man who’d picked me up pulled his other fist way back. He was going to hit me. As his knuckles swooped down out of the sky at me, I swung my head away and took the brunt of the blow in my cheek socket rather than on the jaw, but it knocked my glasses off and needles of light orbited my skull. I’d never been hit by a man. I knew men packed a lot of strength in their shoulders, but I had no idea they could inflict this much pain with one bare-knuckle punch. I slumped over the fire hydrant, felt my bag being tugged from my arm . . . and finally woke up.
His skin touching mine was what did it. How dare he! I’d been raised with a strong sense of indignation at injustice and sensed some unstoppable power uncoiling inside me, hot, roiling, murderous, lashing and snapping, surging upward blinding me to danger. I don’t think I’ve ever known such anger before or since. I could have bitten their heads off.
With hindsight this was the most stupid reaction for a lone young woman against three strapping men, but being set upon in this way for no reason had aroused something primeval in me.
I didn’t mention what sort of rehearsal I was going to. Opera. I’d vocalized for a good hour before leaving the house so my voice was warmed up. I couldn’t fight these men their way, but fight them I would.
I wheeled around, opened my throat like a funnel, and roared into their faces. They leaped sky-high. I hope I shattered their ear drums. As they fled from my outrage--I was a contralto but hit several high C’s that day--I chased them, attacking with my voice, which seemed to drag me along after it as I tore around the corner pursuing them up Riverside Drive, beating them to a pulp with Wagnerian decibels. As they outran me, I roared out my frustration at not being able to lay my bare hands on them, across the Hudson, down to the New York City Opera, up to heaven.
A window way up a towering skyscraper flung open. "Enough already, lady," boomed a voice. "I called the cops. I told them some broad’s being murdered in the street. Pipe down, will ya?"
I hadn’t realized I was still bellowing. It’s a wonder a lung hadn’t come flying out of my mouth. I slumped against the wall, totally drained, dizzy, numb. I was reduced to one great shuddering pulse, pounding as if I had fever.
A hand clawed at my elbow. "Come with me, I’m a doctor," said its owner.
My head jerked around to look at a seedy specimen clutching my coat arm telling me he was a doctor. A likely story. My sixth sense told me this situation was more dangerous than what I’d just survived. And suddenly I remembered Monsieur Bilbo Baggins’s reaction to my coming here tonight. His cat sense had foreseen all.
"We saw everything," rasped another man’s voice, out of breath, panting. "We were driving up Riverside Drive. Are you all right, dear?"
I wheeled around on this second man and instantly felt safer. He was older, bundled up for winter, taking my arm in a different way from the "doctor." I buzzed around again, and my doctor had disappeared.
"My son’s going after them," said the kind man.
I looked up Riverside Drive to see a young man tearing along the sidewalk. I pulled away from his father and rushed after him. "No," I yelled. "They’ve got a gun. Come back, please, it’s not worth it."
The son stopped and trotted back to me. He and his father helped me into the nearest building, where I collapsed on a seat in the vestibule. Somebody handed me a Styrofoam cup of water. I don’t know why people administer water at times like this. It was winter, the water was cold. But I suppose they want to do something, anything to show concern.
"Where was the Neighborhood Watch!" demanded one tenant.
"That’s the third time this week somebody’s been mugged on this corner," complained another.
"It’s a disgrace."
"Something ought to be done about it."
Quite a crowd had gathered. Contrary to the experience of many New Yorkers, my cries had not gone unheeded. I was the center of a lot of folks’ attention that evening, while the police drove up in a matter of minutes.
Before I crawled into the police car to scout around the streets to see if we could spot my muggers, a frail old lady tottered up to me and stared into my face as if scrutinizing it for signs of injury.
She demanded in a quavering voice, "Where did you learn to scream like that?"
"I’m sorry, something sort of took over, I---"
"You’re sorry! Are you kidding, hon’? Boy, I wish I could scream like that. Maybe then those bastards would have left me alone when they jumped me last week with a knife at my throat." She dragged an arthritic forefinger across her wrinkled neck with a gallows grimace.
I looked into her rheumy eyes and began to cry. As if sensing that my life was no longer threatened, whatever animal instinct had taken hold of me to ensure I lived retreated to its lair, and I started shivering as if somebody had dipped me in ice-water. I could have been killed. To reinforce that terrible truth, my jaw sprang alive with pain, my tongue poked among loosened teeth, and I swallowed the ferrous taste of my own blood. I could be dead. I wanted nothing more in life at that moment than to be at home with Mam and Da, the dogs, and the glorious, the magnificent Monsieur Bilbo Baggins.
Of course the police and I didn’t sight the muggers. The police offered to drive me to a hospital but I refused, I had to get home. They dropped me at the Ansonia. Another cast member drove me home, joking that Beverly Sills was probably searching the streets right now for the new diva of the high C's. Da flew downstairs hitting one step in six, declaring he was going to buy a gun and shoot every bloke in New York City that very night.
"Have a cup of tea first, dear," muttered Mam as she wandered upstairs in a daze. The British answer to every eventuality is a cup of tea--funerals, births, marriages, war, muggings. If ever the world is faced with annihilation, while other nations indulge in missile launches, self-flagellation, orgies, we Brits shall be boiling water for one last cuppa. It’s a comforting thought somehow.
I wondered why Mam was going upstairs to make the tea of course, but I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t anyway because my jaws wouldn’t open. Eventually she staggered downstairs, still in shock, and found the kitchen.
I tumbled onto the couch, a steaming mug of tea--with drinking straw--made by Mam on the coffee table in front of me. Da, having been persuaded not to go and get himself slain, cradled me in his arms. The dogs lay protectively at my feet. And Monsieur Bilbo Baggins, far from cold-shouldering me, crawled up my battered body kneading my flesh, pummeling with velvet pads, pounding me with affection, purring like an engine as he rubbed his head so hard against the side of my face that wasn’t damaged it’s a wonder I didn’t wake up next morning with bruising on both cheeks.
Now I have the sense never to ignore cat sense.
Christine was born and educated in England, but has spent most of her working life in the U.S. Her passions include writing, opera, and animal rights.
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